Jean Kennedy Smith, who was the last surviving sibling of President John F. Kennedy and who as a U.S. ambassador played a key role in the peace process in Northern Ireland, has died, relatives said Thursday. She was 92.
Former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy, Smith’s nephew, confirmed her death. She died Wednesday at her home in Manhattan, her daughter Kym told The New York Times.
Smith was the eighth of nine children born to Joseph P. and Rose Kennedy, and tragically several of them preceded her in death by decades. Her siblings included older brother Joseph Kennedy Jr., killed in action during World War II; Kathleen “Kick’ Kennedy, who died in a 1948 plane crash; the president, assassinated in 1963 and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, slain in 1968. Sen. Edward Kennedy, the youngest of the Kennedy siblings, died of brain cancer in August 2009, the same month their sister Eunice Kennedy Shriver died.
Smith, who married Kennedy family financial adviser and future White House chief of staff Stephen Edward Smith in 1956, was viewed for much of her life as a quiet sister who shunned the spotlight. In her memoir “The Nine of Us,” published in 2016, she wrote that for much of the time her childhood seemed “unexceptional.”
“It is hard for me to fully comprehend that I was growing up with brothers who eventually occupy the highest offices of our nation, including president of the United States,” she explained. “At the time, they were simply my playmates.
"They were the source of my amusement and the objects of my admiration.”
Though she never ran for office, Smith campaigned for her brothers, traveling the country for then-Sen. John F. Kennedy as he sought the presidency in 1960.
In 1963, she stepped in for a traveling Jacqueline Kennedy and co-hosted a state dinner for Ireland’s president. The same year, she accompanied her brother — the first Irish Catholic president — on his famous visit to Ireland. Smith later recalled the trip as “one of the most moving experiences of my own life.” Their great-grandfather, Patrick Kennedy, was from Dunganstown in County Wexford in southeastern Ireland.
Three decades later, Smith was appointed ambassador to Ireland by President Bill Clinton.
Diplomacy, like politics, ran in the Kennedy family. Smith’s father was ambassador to the United Kingdom from 1938 to 1940. Niece Caroline Kennedy served as ambassador to Japan during the Obama administration.
“We’re the first father-daughter ambassadors,” Smith told The Irish Times in 1997. “So I can’t remember a time when we were not an actively political family.”
As ambassador, Kennedy played a “pivotal role” in the Northern Ireland peace process, Irish President Michael Higgins said Thursday.
“An activist diplomat, she was not afraid to break with convention or explore the limits of her mandate,” Higgins said in a statement. “She will be forever remembered as the diplomat who had a sense of Irish history and of what had influenced the Irish in the United States.”
Simon Coveney, the country’s Deputy Prime Minister, said her work in “reaching across political divides” was “invaluable” in Ireland’s hard-won peace.
Smith helped persuade Clinton to grant a controversial visa in 1994 to Gerry Adams, chief of the Irish Republican Army-linked Sinn Fein party. The move defied the British government, which branded Adams as a terrorist.
She also risked controversy in 1998 by taking communion in a Protestant cathedral in Dublin, going against the bishops of her Roman Catholic church.
Smith said at the time it was a gesture of support for Irish President Mary McAleese, a fellow Catholic who had been criticized by Irish bishops for joining in the Protestant communion service.
“Religion, after all, is about bringing people together,” she told The Irish Times. “We all have our own way of going to God.”
Smith, who received Irish citizenship for “distinguished service to the nation" after stepping down as ambassador in 1998, worked tirelessly to strengthen the “enduring links” between the two nations, the U.S. Embassy in Dublin said Thursday.
In a statement, the embassy quoted from one of her final speeches as ambassador: "Though I am leaving soon, I am not really going away because my heart will always be here."
Patrick Kennedy, whose wife Amy is running for Congress as a Democrat in New Jersey, also highlighted his aunt's role in the Irish peace process as the crux of her “enormous legacy."
“She knew it was crucial to bring everybody in in order for there to be lasting peace,” Patrick Kennedy told the AP. “She took an enormous risk to her own reputation and stature as an ambassador.”
Samantha Power, who served as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations under President Obama, recalled Smith as a “generous mentor” to young women who was always brimming with energy, savvy and wit.
“This is an immense loss,” she tweeted Thursday.
Massachusetts Congressman Joseph P. Kennedy III, who is RFK’s grandson and the lone member of the political dynasty currently in elected office, said she was an “incredible aunt" who led a “remarkable life.”
“I’ll miss your trouble-making and your huge heart, Aunt Jean,” the Democrat tweeted Thursday.
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal, the dean of Massachusetts’s delegation to the House of Representatives, called Smith a “caring mother, a dedicated sibling, an accomplished diplomat and philanthropist.”
In 1974, Smith founded Very Special Arts, an education program that supports artists with physical or mental disabilities. Her 1993 book with George Plimpton, “Chronicles of Courage: Very Special Artists,” features interviews with disabled artists. The program followed in the footsteps of her sister Eunice’s creation of the Special Olympics for disabled athletes.
Smith and her husband had four children, Stephen Jr., William, Amanda and Kym. Her husband died in 1990.
Her son, Dr. William Kennedy Smith, made headlines in 1991, when he was charged with rape at the Kennedy estate in Palm Beach, Florida. He was acquitted after a highly publicized trial that included testimony from his uncle, Sen. Edward Kennedy, who had roused his nephew and son to go to some nightclubs that Easter weekend.
Among Smith’s other siblings, Rosemary died in 2005; and Patricia in 2006.
“Certainly a distinct characteristic of our family was its size,” Smith wrote in her memoir. “A child in a big family constantly feels surrounded and supported. For me, there was always someone to play with or someone to talk to just around the corner, out on the porch, or in the next bedroom. I never felt alone.”